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Our Own Selves’: The Intersection of Marginalized Safe Spaces in Justified

actor Mykelti Williamson as Ellstin Limehouse in FX series Justified, a Black man in a barn wearing a straw hat and work vest

In late December 2022, Sydney Bucksbaum reported in Entertainment Weekly that Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens would return to television in Justified: City Primeval, a limited series set eight years after the original series’ finale. Throughout its 78 episodes from 2010 to 2015, FX’s Justified explored various competing legal and illegal enterprises in Lexington and greater Harlan County in eastern Kentucky. In the final episode of Justified, Raylan left Kentucky for South Florida, but the new series will apparently take him to Detroit as he follows a new set of criminals. From childhood to his career in the Marshals Service, Raylan, played by Timothy Oliphant, is confined by criminality and his competing and conflicting loyalties to family, friends, and enemies is often based upon geography. In Harlan, Raylan grew up as the estranged son of a career criminal named Arlo and rebuked this legacy by joining the Marshals Service and moving to South Florida. Sent back to Kentucky by the Marshals after killing a Miami gunrunner named Tommy Bucks, Raylan spent the next six years clashing with various hoodlums, fugitives, and gangsters deep in the physical and psychological confines of his childhood, desperate to escape back to freedom away from Harlan.

This article will examine Justified’s impact as an intersectional show examining the complexities of familial and geographic identities through the focal point of the historical privileging of white male landownership as the basis for legal and economic power. To do so, I will first briefly lay out the role of whiteness as an identifier of power through Richard Dyer and Toni Morrison’s writings on race and culture and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal theory of intersectionality. This will be followed by two sections, one on the Black enclave within the show based upon a historical haven for the descendants of enslaved people, and one on the two white women who seek control of land to secure agency for their clan and community. I seek to examine these spaces through intersectionality to show that for Justified, land, security, and agency are tied together through questions of loyalty and bound by the constructions of race, gender, and law. Justified’s exploration of themes of loyalty to kin, land, gender, and race and the violence often required to secure such identifiers against enemies within and without mark the show as a remarkable American crime series.

Section One: Intersections of Whiteness, the Law, and Justified’s Hollers

Competing loyalties and identities define nearly every character in the show, and these struggles especially play out against the show’s setting in Appalachia. While shot on locations in Oklahoma and Southern California, the show positions Raylan in that middle ground between the West and the South, a crucial point for Justified’s play with race, place, and whiteness. As Richard Dyer says in White:

The West constitutes a myth of origins for the USA, for a hundred years the leading edge of the white world. It stands in contrast to another such myth, the South. The West shows the construction of a (white) national identity centered on men and in the face of an indigenous ethnic other, whereas the South shows the construction of centered on women and in the face of a forced immigrant other.1

As I will argue in sections two and three, in Justified, such constructions of mythical whiteness in Raylan and his white male antagonists intersect far more nuanced depictions of the struggles for agency by Black people and white women. Reading Raylan through Dyer we can see how Raylan’s ultimate escape from Harlan’s hold on him is possible through and because of his whiteness, whereas for a Black man like Ellstin Limehouse, or white women like Mags Bennett and Loretta McCready, the only way to hold on to any sense of self requires control of land within Harlan. Dyer’s larger points about the constructions of whiteness as a barrier for entry to political, economic, and social powers are on display throughout Justified, particularly in the contestations of over spaces created and maintained as safe for white criminals and for Black families.

Like Dyer’s White, Toni Morrison’s work on race and the literary imagination, Playing in the Dark, can be usefully applied to Justified’s portrayal of whiteness and the mythos of the cowboy and the American West as part of its interrogation of spaces like Appalachia as both dead ends and potential safe spaces. As Morrison says of the American Dream, Raylan’s place in the show is as that plucky American (white) man, who,

with luck and endurance … could discover freedom; find a way to make God’s law manifest; or end up rich as a prince. The desire for freedom is preceded by oppression; a yearning for God’s law is born of the detestation of human license and corruption; the glamor of riches is in thrall to poverty, hunger, and debt.2

Raylan presses his luck from the series’ opening scene, where he outdraws Tommy Bucks, through to a climactic gun fight with his quick draw equal to that of Boon in Season Six, and throughout he feels oppressed by his assignment in Lexington and desires the agency to return to South Florida free from the debts of family and other loyalties in Harlan.3

Through the discussions opened by Dyer and Morrison on whiteness and space, this essay will focus on two places in Harlan that Raylan knows well: the Bennett Family land and Noble’s Holler. Both enclaves are set up within the show’s larger plots as protected by their clans for such illicit activities as cultivating marijuana, moving narcotics, harboring wanted fugitives, stashing fortunes, and the disposing of unwanted bodies. But what marks these two spaces as especially compelling within the complicated world of Justified is the show’s play with the positions afforded racial and gender identities within the real history of Coe Ridge, a post-Reconstruction settlement of formerly enslaved people and their descendants that existed into the 1950s, despite decades of assaults by white supremacists, and the struggle over the potential riches through legalized cultivation of marijuana and the control of illicit narcotics, a very real scourge in present day Appalachia.

Likewise, two of Justified’s female characters, Mags Bennett, played by Margo Martingale, and Loretta McCreedy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, attempt to access or hold on to the promise of the American dream of land and expanding agency whereas Ellstin Limehouse and his African-American clan in the Holler work continually to preserve that freedom they enjoy through what little land and agency within it they can hold on to against all comers. Following Morrison, Justified thus interrogates and ultimately reinforces that the white lawman and wealthy white woman are worthy of the American dream of self-determination, while Limehouse and his clan are fenced in by the ghetto of their Holler: “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me.”4 Like its historical precedent Coe Ridge, Noble’s Holler was conceived as a refuge for formerly enslaved people, and racists like Boyd Crowder, the show’s main antagonist, and the Bennetts proudly proclaim their whiteness and free roots as going back to founding of the Republic. However, only Noble’s Holler is preserved as a community, unchanged in the show’s run.

In sections two and three, I will argue that Noble’s Holler and the Bennett Family’s land are focal points demonstrating Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality because both spaces are allowed to exist safely and remain autonomous so long as they do not exceed their real and metaphorical boundaries and thus threaten the patriarchies. Crenshaw’s seminal work on critical race theory and her concept of intersectionality informs this argument regarding race, gender and land-ownership in Justified. In the second of her two landmark essays, “Mapping the Margin: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Crenshaw writes that:

Racism is linked to patriarchy to the extent that racism denies men of color the power and privilege that dominant men enjoy. When violence is understood as an acting-out of being denied male power in other spheres, it seems counterproductive to embrace constructs that implicitly link the solution to domestic violence to the acquisition of greater male power.5

Further, Justified’s intersections of race, money, land, and crime reinforce patriarchy and racist values while appearing to break with such values through the promotion of white women like Mags Bennett and then Loretta McCreedy. As Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman argue in “The Female Antihero and Police Power in FX’s Justified,” “Mags embodies a working-class, matriarchal ethic” and that “Mags [is] a particular kind of antihero, characterized by distinctly female forms of knowledge, compassion, and power. Violent and vengeful, Mags is also a nurturing force, fiercely committed to her community.”6 However much economic power a man like Ellstin Limehouse accrues, his “not-whiteness” marks the Noble’s Holler community as forever “not-free.” On the other hand, Mags and her dimwitted sons grow too greedy and overstep the boundaries of what the Marshals Service community allows them to get away with, but until they push out from their land, they are largely left alone to grow and sell marijuana locally. White women of means like Mags and Loretta are therefore only safe in the spaces afforded by the white/State legal apparatus.

The final sections of this essay will focus mainly on the representations of these two clans, the African Americans in Noble’s Holler lead by Ellstin Limehouse, played by Mykelti Williamson, and the matriarchal Bennetts, as well as the ways in which the varying levels of agency afforded characters in these spaces are key components of Justified’s lasting power. As Martin Schuster argues, “not only is agency understood by Justified to be deeply historical (here, with its specific American details), but also the extent to which Justified presupposes that agency is always expressive not of a fact (whether physical or metaphysical), but rather of an act.”7 Ultimately, Justified reifies and reinscribes a cynical viewpoint regarding agency and autonomy at the intersections of race, gender, and land. Raylan Givens escapes Kentucky, and is last seen back in Miami, separated from his wife, but with their daughter. However, while Ellstin Limehouse remains holed up in Noble’s Holler, Mags Bennett and two of her sons are dead, while the third is imprisoned, and Ava Crowder and her son by Boyd are sequestered in the witness protection program. To again look to Schuster, we can see that “Justified especially offers one of the best means of tying such an exploration of agency to the very project of America.”8 In short, only the white lawman can fully determine his own fate, and, as the show’s closing theme states, “leave Harlan County alive.”

Section Two: Secured from Without and Within: Noble’s Holler and the History of Coe Ridge

In Justified’s depictions of the intersections of race, gender, and money, chiefly tied to landownership and various legal and criminal enterprises, the show continually interrogates the relationship in the United States broadly, but Appalachia in particular, between identity and “belonging” to a piece of land. From Raylan’s ejection from Miami, to the power of coal in both cultural memory and in the real costs to the environment, to the battle over potentially legal marijuana cultivation, control of and access to specific places is always a focus in Justified’s larger plots. Following Dyer and Crenshaw’s points that whiteness affords agency over physical spaces, especially in the West, this section will argue that the characters who are afforded the greatest chance to acquire more power through land purchases and uses are white women, while people of color must act from the shadows to preserve and protect the enclave they have held since Reconstruction.

Control of territories in the show goes beyond geography and into Michel Foucault’s point in “Questions on Geography” in Power/Knowledge that “territory is no doubt a geographical notion, but it’s first of all a juridico-political one: the area controlled by a certain kind of power.”9 Among Justified’s kinds of power are marijuana cultivation and distribution on the Bennett land; control of dirty physicians writing prescriptions for Oxycodone in greater Harlan; and the larger drug war between the Dixie Mafia in Frankfort, Theo Tonin’s Detroit crime syndicate, and Boyd Crowder’s Harlan crew. Further, the show features jurisdictional battles between the US Attorney and Marshals Offices in Lexington, the FBI, and Federal Judge Mike Reardon’s Court Room.

In this section and the next, I will examine these forms of power to show how clan leaders Ellstin Limehouse and Mags Bennett seek to secure power over their respective territories outside the control of the various authorities and crews looking to dominate them. When run properly, these spaces function outside the control of the kinds of white men who drive Justified’s main plots—but “properly” here means that Limehouse and Mags must limit how they and their people imagine what these spaces can be and what can be done inside their borders.

Justified demonstrates over and over Crenshaw’s central concept that the intersections of race and gender must be not seen as independent vectors of power, but as a matrix of discriminatory forces that leave people of color, especially Black women, largely without agency (and there are no women of color featured in prominent roles in either Mags’ family, as they are largely white supremacists, or in Noble’s Holler, clearly a patrilineal clan). Justified does feature one notable exception to this silencing of Black women: Deputy US Marshal Rachel Brooks, played by Erica Tazel. However, in the Bennett land, Rachel is viewed as a definitive outsider; as Hagelin and Silverman say: “Rachel is an African-American woman whom Mags pointedly calls ‘ma’am,’ making the seemingly respectful address sound like either a dismissal or a threat.”10 Rachel is also visibly uncomfortable and largely unwelcome in Noble’s Holler because of her job, and, perhaps more so, because she does not accede to the Holler’s patriarchal structure. While Limehouse derisively refers to her as “Little Sister,” Rachel is consistently presented as a superior peace officer to Raylan, and when Chief Deputy Art Mullen is nearly killed in the line of duty, he names Rachel, not Raylan, Acting Chief. This exception need not prove Crenshaw’s “rule,” but Rachel’s character does add another layer of complication to Justified’s play with identities and locations, as Raylan sees her promotion as oppression as she affords him less legal leeway than Art, and he knows she’s the better Marshal.

In both the Holler and the Bennett Land, the show’s physical spaces work in conjunction with Crenshaw’s ideas that at the intersections of race, gender, and power, any attempt by women and people of color to push out of ghettoized enclaves or subservience will be met with fierce opposition by systems controlled by white men. Mags Bennett’s power and control over her land is destroyed when two of her sons attempt to expand their marijuana operation into the greater narcotics trade. At other points in the series, in order to protect Noble’s Holler, Limehouse must push back against attempts by people in his community to do the same. But in Season Six, Mag’s protégé and beneficiary, Loretta, appears ready to succeed in building a consortium of white farmers to fill the vacuum left by the Bennetts. As the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, California and other states has proved, white supremacy trumps Blackness at the intersections of money, land, and economic success—what Black “dealers” have gone to jail for, white “entrepreneurs” are now cashing in on.

Viewers are first introduced to Noble’s Holler in Season Three’s second episode, “Cut Ties.” Over the course of the season, they learn in bits and pieces about the Holler’s history and how it has been owned and held against encroachment by former enslaved people and their descendants since Reconstruction. Yost and his writers based their stories on the real history of Coe Ridge, an isolated colony settled by free people previously enslaved by the Coe family of Cumberland County, Kentucky, about 175 miles west of Justified’s setting in Harlan. In a 2012 interview with Scott Tobias published on the A.V. Club website, Yost said:

We did some research and came upon a few stories that intrigued us. One was about this enclave, Coe Ridge, that had been predominately African-American. And we knew there still were little townlets in the area, little hamlets in Harlan that were predominately black. Coe Ridge intrigued us. It doesn’t really exist anymore, but it did survive from the Civil War and Emancipation, up until about the ’60s, and the stories we heard about that were pretty intriguing.11

This “intrigue” would likely have led to Yost and his team to one or both published histories of the colony.

The first was written by a member of the Coe family, Samuel S. Coe, and R.A. Adams, and originally published in 1930 as The Chronicle of the Coe Colony, Pea Ridge, Kentucky. The second was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 1970 as The Saga of Coe Ridge by William Lynwood Montell, professor of folklore at Western Kentucky University. The Chronicle of the Coe Colony is based on Samuel Coe’s personal testimony and knowledge of family folklore. Working a generation later, Montell sought out as many people as he could find who lived in or near the colony and leans heavily on Coe and Adams’ text. Throughout his work, Coe consistently says that his family and friends in the colony only wanted peace and autonomy:

The boys of the ‘Coe tribe’ never did seek trouble with anyone. They were peaceable, but they asked to be recognized as men to be permitted to live and make their support, as others were doing. But, while they were for peace, and wanted to live in peace with all men, they were determined to defend their own rights, and in any way it might be necessary; and it was well understood that they would not bow and cringe before any man.12

Justified’s creative team seems to have picked up the Colony’s fierce determination, self-reliance, and refusal to bend to outsiders in their depiction of the residents of Noble’s Holler—especially in the depiction of the Holler’s patriarch, Ellstin Limehouse’s familial pride and continual vigilance against invasion by outsiders. In the episode “Harlan Roulette,” Limehouse explains to Boyd Crowder that: “my father . . . like his father before him and so on, … always kept armed guard on this bridge at all times. Back then, it was a necessary precaution. . . . Though, there are still those who wish my people harm and those who advocate for the restoration of white supremacy in the land.” For Limehouse and his people, Noble’s Holler is a sacred space, a birthright, that must be held against those who would take it from them and destroy their claims of agency and self-determination.

While Montell demonstrates a general mistrust of Coe’s narrative, often disparaging the Coes as ‘half-breeds,’ Montell does detail how members of the Taylor family and other whites living near Coe Ridge explicitly cited race as their primary motivation for wanting to kill all the members of the colony and “reclaim” the land. Just so, in Justified, Noble’s Holler is situated as a refuge for the community against racist whites looking to conquer the land and remove Limehouse from his position of (limited and liminal) power.

While bootlegging moonshine became the main industry in Coe Ridge early in the Twentieth Century, Noble’s Holler is not shown as specifically organized around it. The Holler is the scene of an unreported homicide, and Limehouse harbors several fugitives within the community. Ultimately, it is an ambivalent space with regard to the law; as for the residents, the law is more often a tool of white supremacy, but they will work with Raylan and the Marshals if such actions protect the territory’s autonomy or advance their economic interests.

According to Limehouse, the families in the Holler have secured it as an autonomous—if liminal—space through careful control of all who would cross their bridge, so the families have survived amidst white supremacists and others who would take their land and agency by being ever watchful. The bridge marks not only the limit of Limehouse’s territory, but marks where the people of Noble’s Holler must look out from. But Limehouse is not some avuncular appeaser, bowing and cringing before white supremacists; e.g., when one of Theo Tonin’s associates from Detroit named Robert Quarles draws a hidden derringer inside Limehouse’s restaurant, Limehouse dismembers him with a massive cleaver. Once Quarles crossed into the Holler, he lost the legal and social protection of his racial and gender identities. Inside the Holler, Raylan, and even Boyd, afford Limehouse his proper respect.

Noble’s Holler and the wider world of white supremacists and other powers who would control it are largely at a stalemate; while Limehouse can offer protection for those on his side of the bridge, the Holler must be guarded continually. Limehouse demonstrates that any attempt to spread the power contained within the Holler beyond the bridge will be met with force that could endanger the whole space. Only white folk, even a young woman like Loretta whose money is held by Limehouse, may find financial success and agency outside the Holler in the ways that young Holler men argue that they should seize in Season Three. So, while on the surface it would appear that Noble’s Holler offers a progressive view of black autonomy, if we position Noble’s Holler against the burgeoning collective of white farmers led by Loretta in Season Six, Justified demonstrates the clear limits so often placed upon people of color at the intersections of power, race, gender, and landownership.

While the Holler has set geographical boundaries, it is large enough and its territory unknown to outsiders to a degree that it offers natural protections. Information about who is in the Holler and what business they may have with its residents is a crucial factor in preserving its autonomy. Limehouse explains the Holler’s residents trade in information gathered about those outside the Holler, a currency that has helped them survive amid their enemies. He also shows Boyd that those outside the Holler are privileged in their ignorance of those inside, a luxury the Holler’s residents cannot afford. As Limehouse says in the episode “When the Guns Come Out,” “It’s always been our business to know you. Us knowing is the business of this holler.” It is thus clear that the Holler’s safety and autonomy depend upon surveillance and knowledge of the world beyond the bridge—perhaps more so than having a secure boarder and economic inter-dependence. However, at this intersection of race, land, and autonomy and despite being an outlaw and white supremacist, Boyd need not familiarize himself with anyone in the Holler besides Limehouse. Limehouse and his crew must remain vigilant even when they act as banker for outlaws like Mags and would-be entrepreneurs like Loretta.

Furthering Justified’s play with the history of Coe Ridge, Noble’s Holler is also set up as a safe haven for white women to seek shelter from their abusers. In this way, Noble’s Holler is an intersection of white women’s and African Americans’ struggles for autonomy against State and personal violence. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Crenshaw also writes,

Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination—that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance.13

Crenshaw rejects this objective, seeing instead that such categories, as much as they are social constructs, have real meaning and real effects of marginalization. These categories have been used to demonize, even kill people in the past, as can be easily seen in the history of the Coe Colony that Justified so skillfully weaves into its narratives. White women like Ava, Frances Givens (Raylan’s mother) and Helen Givens (his step-mother) who seek safety across the bridge are not looking to empty social categories; they are looking to stay alive as much as the generations of real women, white and Black, who went to Coe Ridge did between Reconstruction and the Cold War.

Throughout season three of Justified, Limehouse works to check the ambition of younger men who, unlike the Coe Ridge residents who sought only their autonomy, want to push out from the Holler to seize greater territories—namely, the local marijuana trade after the Bennett family collapses in Season Two’s climax. To do so, Errol Butler, played by Demetrious Grosse, takes it on himself to foment a drug war between the Detroit outsider, Quarles, against both the Dixie Mafia out of Frankfort and Boyd’s local Harlan crew. While Errol’s plan makes tactical sense from the standpoint of taking economic advantage of the power vacuum left by Mags’ suicide, Limehouse insists that any attempt to broaden the Holler’s powers will only open the Holler to violent racist reprisals as the real Taylor family sought to murder the Coes and “take back” the Colony’s land for whites.

Limehouse thus sees the workings of the Holler and those who would take it from the clan in the Foucauldian “juridico-political” sense, demanding Errol explain what will happen when the war arrives at their bridge and “all the hillbillies start takin’ it personal when we start killin’ white folks? They always wanted us gone, and now you done exposed us to every buried, hate-filled desire in this county.”14 Limehouse here reinforces that Noble’s Holler is allowed to exist because the residents do not interfere in the legal and criminal enterprises being carried out on the other side of their bridge. The idea of “knowing his place” does not sit well with Errol, and he is banished from the Holler for a time. Later, he slips back over the bridge to help save Raylan and Limehouse from Quarles, secure the Holler, and regain Limehouse’s trust.

In other words, Errol’s naïve but understandable desire for a prominent seat at Harlan’s criminal table, a seat that I will argue in the next section the young white woman Loretta can make overtures for, would set the Holler on a course of destruction. Cynically, Limehouse argues that they are better off at their own table, separate and unequal, and the conflict with Quarles ultimately proves to Errol that keeping control over their territory requires that they remain cautious, always mindful of the limits on their power by guarding their borders, managing their ambitions, and checking the hunger for personal recognition and success.

In another meeting in Limehouse’s diner in Season Three, Raylan warns Limehouse that Federal boots will be all over the Holler if he doesn’t turn over Quarles, threatening Limehouse’s autonomy and wealth.15 Limehouse responds that he appreciates Raylan’s concerns, but “plenty of kings have tried to lay claim on Noble’s Holler, and none have ever succeeded.”16 Limehouse continues the tradition of checking all would-be kings because he accepts that the Holler survives by cautiously guarding hard-won territory and not making aggressive moves that will leave them vulnerable to being flanked and cut off from the Holler. As Samuel Coe said that the Coe Ridge people only wanted to live securely and freely, Limehouse ensures that Noble’s Holler remains a safe space through vigilant observation of those in and around it, constant trade in information, and by acting as a depositor few would dare try to rob.

Of all the disputed territories in Justified, Noble’s Holler is the only one that remains unmolested by outsiders. As I will argue in the next section, Noble’s Holler’s success provides a kind of counter-example to the implosion of Bennett Land in season two because while the clan’s reach is strictly limited to the land granted formerly enslaved families after the Civil War, Limehouse secures that land financially, politically, and informationally. However, whatever agency they may enjoy is strictly limited to the space they can hold, and no further.

Justified demonstrates that these non-white male characters must seek to seize and carefully hold safe spaces—their “own selves,” as Loretta says in Season Six regarding a would-be collective—or remain marginalized and vulnerable within and without the boundaries of the law. As Morrison and Crenshaw argue, only Loretta and the white farmers can do so openly—the intersections of land-ownership, money, and power always reveal the racial fault-lines in America as the residents of Noble’s Holler work to remain hidden from the larger world to preserve their land and limited autonomy.

Justified’s sub-plots about such territories as Noble’s Holler show the dangers for historically marginalized people if they dare succeed beyond what white male powerbrokers like the coal companies, the Marshals Service, and the Mafia allow. The clans led by Mags Bennett and Ellstin Limehouse, and then the collective led by Loretta McCreedy, all work to be secure in their respective territories, but the long arc of Mags’ downfall and Limehouse’s recognition he cannot operate outside of the Holler demonstrate that where race, gender, and landownership intersect, traditional patriarchal powers will do everything they can to keep Black people confined to a limited space while white women can enter the domain of the white lawman and thrive.

Section Three: Matriarchal Marijuana: The White Women of Harlan and the Potential Agency of Land-Based Collectives

Near the end of Justified’s run, Loretta McCreedy moves to create a consortium of farmers to take on the organized crime syndicates like the Dixie Mafia and newcomer Avery Markham, played by Sam Elliott, over the growing and distribution of marijuana in Harlan. Each group sees legalization on the horizon in Kentucky, but while Errol Butler was more interested in taking over the narcotics trade, it is impossible not to see that the young white woman can move in ways even a wealthy and powerful black man like Limehouse cannot because he must remain within the Holler’s borders. But as a white woman with money, Loretta offers the white farmers of Harlan a counterproposition to selling their land to an outsider: the exceedingly dangerous Markham who has returned to his native Kentucky banking on legal marijuana as his final legacy and score.

Whereas Mags Bennett sought to enrich her family through secret negotiations with mining operatives while outwardly speaking of protecting the environment and local autonomy for all, in Season Six Loretta McCready offers a genuine collective identity that need not hide, but can be a force of open civil and financial power: “Throw in with me, and we’ll make Harlan prosperous our own selves. Give this county back to the people the way we all know it should be!”17 Loretta can operate much more broadly than Limehouse because of her whiteness, even as he holds her money. Loretta and Limehouse seek to achieve and preserve autonomy and financial security by taking control and holding parcels of land that have been disputed and fought over by often powerless people, especially the descendants of enslaved people, against powerful forces like the coal companies and white supremacists, but only a Black man like Errol has to learn to check his ambition—Loretta is free to pursue much wider entrepreneurial goals.

But Mags Bennett is powerfully portrayed as cunning and utterly ruthless, from the moment of her introduction where she murders Loretta’s father with moonshine served in a glass poisoned with a maternal recipe “learned from the hills” to her suicide by the same method. As with Limehouse and Noble’s Holler in Season Three and after, Mags’ and Loretta’s attempts to control land, as well as the cultivation of marijuana, underpin the larger stories in Seasons Two and Six of Justified. In her essay, “The Unruly Woman in FX’s Justified,” Jae Yoon Park argues that “far from the image of liberated women who seemingly have the freedom to make their own decisions, the women of Harlan appear to have little control over their lives.”18 Park’s essay appeared before Loretta’s run at the legalized cannabis business in Season Six, but Loretta is the only exception to Park’s point about women’s agency in Harlan.

I will argue in the remainder of this section that while white women like Mags and Loretta have limited agency, Mags’ sons’ uncontrolled and unchecked greed, fostered by their gender and racial positions, dooms the Bennett Clan.19 Further, counter to her role as Mags’ protégé, Loretta learns that instead of ruling with violence she can better imagine and foster a community through a bottom-up organization that succeeds for all, not just the matriarch.

Mags and Loretta’s characters mark Justified’s deep engagement with a series of subtexts and plots focused away from the white male lawman’s arc to explore how women consolidate power and seek to secure autonomy. While Park further argues that “the series constantly foregrounds the social constraints of gender, class, and regional identity in pre-feminist Harlan, which function as fundamental trappings for Ava and Mags,” Mags fails because, unlike Limehouse with Errol, she cannot check her sons’ greed and misplaced ambition.20 Ultimately, however, Loretta builds out from the matriarchal clan identity to a greater community of white landowners and farmers in Harlan County because, as white woman, she can gather social and economic power in ways that Limehouse and the Holler community dare not.

Returning to Richard Dyer, we see that “White identity is founded on compelling paradoxes” that Justified explores through characters like Limehouse, Mags, and Loretta:

a vividly corporeal cosmology that most values transcendence of the body; a notion of being at once a sort of race and the human race, and individual and a universal subject; a commitment to heterosexuality that, for whiteness to be affirmed, entails men fighting against sexual desires and women having none.21

Mags is heavyset and never wears dresses or other traditional signifiers of Southern femininity or sexual desire; as Duncan says, “Mags did not subscribe to any of the social conventions or confines of the traditional Southern Belle.”22 Martingale rarely wore much make-up or styled her hair for the role, using a plain appearance to occlude Mags’ dangerous and deadly intelligence and ruthless drive for money and power. She is tough, savvy, and determined, but where Limehouse shows Errol that playing it safe benefits the whole Holler, Mags cannot control her sons. But even as they bring her down by forcing the Marshals to come into her land over narcotics, she has Limehouse act as executor of her estate to endow Loretta, and not her surviving son, with her fortune. The black man’s space therefore reinscribes power ultimately being in the hands of white folk like Loretta.

Like the residents of Noble’s Holler, the Bennetts conceive of their identity as a family, and more broadly as Southerners and Americans, through their territory’s provenance, arguing that they have been entrenched on their land since the American Revolution. Known as cultivators of high-grade marijuana, the DEA and the Marshals Service see Mags’ clan as relatively small time, contained within one town in Harlan County where Mags’ oldest son, Doyle, is Chief of Police.

Mags is the most complicated antagonist Raylan faces in Justified’s six seasons. On the one hand, she rules her clan through physical and mental abuse, torture, and murder, but on the other, when fourteen-year-old Loretta first approaches Mags about getting protection from James Earl Dean, a sexual predator who works for Dickie and Coover, Mags takes a tender shine to the girl, and removes, as she says, “the pervert.” She then slowly builds Loretta up over the course of the season by giving Loretta more and more responsibilities, testing and rewarding the girl’s intelligence, and seeing her, and not Dickie and Coover, as a true heir apparent.

But unfortunately for Loretta, Mags also sees Walt McCreedy’s call to the state child protection hotline over Dean’s leering as a betrayal of clan loyalty. Walt further compounded that sin by growing and selling a private stash of pot on Mags’ land. As she has Dickie and Coover kill Dean for bothering Loretta, Mags kills Walt herself using a poison recipe passed down to Mags from her grandmother. This kind of ruthless self-policing is not isolated to the Bennett land, of course—Limehouse and Boyd punish disloyal members of their respective communities with similar acts of violence—but Mags’ position as a brutal matriarch plays against type as a Southern Belle, as Duncan effectively argues, and Loretta learns the power of femininity as well as that of guile, subterfuge, and revenge at Mags’ feet.

When they next meet, Mags tells Loretta, “I never had a girl. Just those damn boys. I’m looking forward to our time together.”23 The scene is ambivalent, as they do not trust each other, but given how bright Loretta shows herself to be, Mags senses a girl to whom she can pass down the “wisdom of the hills,” but also a potential future rival, so she works to keep Loretta close to her.24 Mags continually tests Loretta’s intelligence, instincts, loyalty, and guile and rewards her successes. Mags even has Loretta run the Bennett front operation, a general store, while Mags is away, a privilege and responsibility she never affords her sons. Later, before a barbeque at the store, Mags tenderly fixes Loretta’s hair and gives her a dress to wear along with maternal advice: “Now look here. There ain’t no shame in a woman looking beautiful. My time has passed, ain’t nothing for it. But you, you got … power you haven’t even come to understand.”25 Throughout the remainder of the series, Loretta engages this power, becoming more and more ruthless, bent on securing revenge for her father’s murder and then greater economic success. Ultimately, using the holding company she set up through Limehouse, Loretta outwits Dickie Bennett and buys Mags’ former empire at a fraction of its true worth.

Power over men and boys is very much on Mags’ mind as Season Two progresses, due to Dickie and Coover’s continual refusals to follow Mags’ orders regarding expanding into narcotics. Dickie and Coover are not content to carry on with just marijuana, and secretly work to extend their reach by entering into the Oxycodone trade. Oxy, as great a scourge among the people in Appalachia as strip-mining has been to the environment, brings them into conflict with the Dixie Mafia, Theo Tonin’s syndicate, and the Marshals, as deadly battles for control of the narcotics trade become more and more focused on Harlan.

Mags recognizes that her sons lack the ability to control themselves and put the community above personal success, as well as the maturity to know when to resist going for more than will be acceptable to more powerful criminals—to say nothing of law enforcement—outside the family’s land. While they fear Mags’ wrath and well understand her territorial surveillance, they, unlike Errol and the rest of Limehouse’s crew, cannot learn to master their greed. Over and over, they fail to control themselves as when Coover openly wears Walt’s gold watch, exposing Mags’ lies of Walt’s safety to Loretta’s keen eyes. Later, Mags learns that the boys brought the Marshals onto her land looking for whomever was cashing Walt’s government checks. In response to this stupidity, Mags shatters one of Coover’s hands with a hammer and threatens to break the other if he disobeys her again.

Like Limehouse, Mags has been successful in keeping the DEA and other federal authorities out of her territory by keeping the weed game largely inside her eldest son’s police jurisdiction. But unlike Limehouse, Mags cannot entice Dickie and Coover to accept any check on their greed because, again looking to Morrison, Dyer, and especially Crenshaw, the intersections of race, gender, and power always privilege white males. For white men like Dickie and Coover, the limits placed upon men and women of color and even white women like Mags and Loretta are unimaginable and unacceptable. But Loretta, like Mags before her, can use her whiteness and her public position as young woman without great means (she hides her inheritance from everyone but Limehouse and Raylan) to build a community that works to resist outsiders trying to take control of Harlan’s farmlands.

By the series finale, Loretta out-maneuvers both Boyd and Markham, career criminals with decades of experience on her, for control of the marijuana trade in Harlan, showing that she is indeed Mags’ only worthy successor. Loretta and Markham believe that Kentucky will follow Colorado, Washington, and other states to fully legalize marijuana, and they battle each other to gain control of as much arable land as possible. Markham and his crew strong-arm Harlan County landowners into selling him their land, even murdering resistant sellers, and try to scare Loretta by both leaving a severed rattlesnake head in her kitchen and making threats of sexual assault against her. Not the timid child she had been when she went to Mags for protection, Loretta is undaunted in the face of these challenges.

While Mags had publicly led resistance to the mining companies in Season Two, all the while secretly negotiating with them to strip the land, in Season Six, Loretta honestly appeals to those who have not yet given in to Markham to keep their land and allow her to cultivate marijuana on it:

Every one of you who has been approached about your property, this is my offer. I will give you cash for your land, same as Markham, but the difference is I don’t want to move you guys out. Just want to move some seed in. And along with that seed, we bring security and protection now and in perpetuity. Hire the locals to help with the farming, pay it back.26

Unlike Mags or Markham, Loretta also isn’t using the threat of violence to get what she wants. Instead, she aims to follow Limehouse’s model of trying to build and keep a community by pulling local people together to protect themselves from Markham, who, she adds, will “cut and run, win or lose.”27 Loretta’s home-grown pitch works, and the community rallies behind her to reject Markham’s offer. While there is not the same kind of identity through family and land going back to slavery as in Noble’s Holler, Loretta’s attempt to forge a community works because of the autonomy her whiteness affords her.

The narcotics trade remains the driving source of power in the criminal underworld that Justified explores throughout its six seasons, and while legal marijuana cultivation and sales are expanding across the United States, the trade in the kind of high-quality pot strains Loretta hopes to cultivate does remain dangerous and subject to territory wars between criminal syndicates. Whether she and Harlan’s landowners could come together and control their territory their “own selves” is a question not answered by the show’s sixth season, and it does not appear that Loretta will appear in the new revival. But Justified ultimately confirms Kimberlé Crenshaw’s argument that

for white women, claiming sex discrimination is simply a statement that but for gender, they would not have been disadvantaged. For them there is no need to specify discrimination as white females because their race does not contribute to the disadvantage for which they seek redress. The view of discrimination that is derived from this grounding takes race privilege as a given.28

For Mags and Loretta, whiteness affords them the space to employ their cunning, drive, and ambition to foster and hold communities in ways that the equally intelligent and ruthless Limehouse cannot. As a Black man charged with holding his enclave against all would be kings, Limestone can hold the bridge to his Holler, but not expand the boundaries. He can hold Mags’ money and bankroll Loretta’s endeavors, but the Noble’s Holler plotlines demonstrate the truth in Crenshaw’s arguments about the intersections of race, gender, and power privileging white people, even women often held back from positions of authority, above all other groups.


Avnet, Jon, director. Justified, episode 15, “The Life Inside,” aired February 16, 2011 on FX.

Bucksbaum, Sydney. “Justified: City Primeval Showrunners Explain Why Raylan Givens is Back.” Entertainment Weekly. Accessed 25 January 2023.

Coe, Samuel S. and R.A. Adams. Chronicle of the Coe Colony, Pea Ridge, Kentucky. 1930. Reprint. Ed. Billy N. Guffey. Burkesville: Kentucky, Xerxes Publishing, 2007.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1. Article 8. (1989): 139-67.

— —. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review. 43.124 (July 1990): 1241-99.

Duncan, Aaron. “A Change of Scenery: The Southern, the Western and the Evolution of the Frontier Myth in Justified.” In Myth and the Modern World: Essays on Intersections with Ideology and Culture, Eds. David Whitt and John Perlich, 61-82. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

Dyer, Richard. White. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Goldwyn, Tony, director. Justified, episode 22, “Brother’s Keeper,” aired April 16, 2011 on FX.

Hagelin, Sarah and Gillian Silverman. “The Female Antihero and Police Power in FX’s Justified.” Feminist Media Studies. 17:5 (2017): 851-865.

Horder-Payton, Gwyneth, director. Justified, episode 35, “Loose Ends,” aired March 13, 2012 on FX.

Joyce, Justin A. “The Warp, Woof, and Weave of This Story’s Tapestry Would Foster the Illusion of Further Progress: Justified and the Evolution of Western Violence.” Western American Literature. 47.2 (Summer 2012): 175-99.

Justified. Created by Graham Yost. 78 Episodes. 2010-15.

Kurt, Don, director. Justified, episode 32, “When the Guns Come Out,” aired February 21, 2012 on FX.

Kurt, Don, director. Justified, episode 74, “Burned,” aired March 17, 2015 on FX.

Montell, William Lynwood. The Saga of Coe Ridge: A Study in Oral History. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Park, Jae Yoon. “The Unruly Woman in FX’s Justified.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present), 13. 2 (2014). .

Shuster, Martin. “‘Boyd and I Dug Coal Together’: Norms, Persons, and Being Justified in Justified.” MLN. 127.5 (Dec. 2012): 1040–58.

Tobias, Scott. “Graham Yost Walks Us Through Justified’s Third Season.” AV Club, accessed December 21, 2017.

Wayne, Michael. L. “Mitigating Colorblind Racism in the Postnetwork Era: Class-Inflected Masculinities in The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified.” The Communication Review. 17 (2014):183–201.

Bio: Jonathan P. Lewis is Associate Professor of English at Troy University where he teaches Science Fiction, Fantasy, and general literature and composition courses. His work has been published in Extrapolation, Foundation SF, Pacific Coast Philology, and elsewhere.


  1. Richard Dyer, White (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 35. ↩︎

  2. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 34-35. ↩︎

  3. See Martin Schuster’s useful discussion of Givens’ agency through violence in “‘Boyd and I Dug Coal Together’: Norms, Persons, and Being Justified in Justified.” (MLN 127 (2012): 1040–1058.) ↩︎

  4. Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 38. ↩︎

  5. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43.124 (July 1990), 1258. ↩︎

  6. Sarah Hagelin and Jillian Silverman, “The Female Antihero and Police Power in FX’s Justified,” Feminist Media Studies, 17, no. 5 (2017), 853, 854. ↩︎

  7. Schuster, “Boyd and I Dug Coal Together,” 1056. ↩︎

  8. Schuster, “Boyd and I Dug Coal Together,” 1056. ↩︎

  9. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 68. ↩︎

  10. Hagelin and Silverman, “The Female Antihero,” 854. ↩︎

  11. Scott Tobias, “Graham Yost Walks Us Through Justified’s Third Season,” AV Club, accessed December 21, 2017. ↩︎

  12. Samuel Coe and R.A. Adams, Chronicle of the Coe Colony, Pea Ridge, Kentucky (Burkesville, Kentucky: Xerxes Publishing, 2007), 43-44. ↩︎

  13. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins,” 1242. ↩︎

  14. Justified, episode 32, “When the Guns Come Out,” directed by Don Kurt, written by Graham Yost, Nichelle D. Tramble, and Dave Andron, aired February 21, 2012 on FX. ↩︎

  15. See Hagelin and Silverman’s discussion of Raylan’s position as a Marshal as reifying, not confronting, state power. ↩︎

  16. Justified, episode 35, “Loose Ends,” directed by Gwenyth Horder-Payton, written by Ingrid Escajeda, aired March 13, 2012 on FX. ↩︎

  17. Justified, episode 74, “Burned,” directed by Don Kurt, written by Dave Andron, Leonard Chang, and Jenny DeArmitt, aired March 17, 2015 on FX. ↩︎

  18. Jae Yoon Park, “The Unruly Woman in FX’s Justified,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present), 13, no. 2 (2014) . ↩︎

  19. Hagelin and Silverman strongly read Mags as a heroic figure in her community, saying, “Mags’s maternal stake in her community (steeped in violence though it may be) is a feminist alternative to the state’s abandonment of its working-class population” (853). ↩︎

  20. Park, “The Unruly Woman in FX’s Justified.” ↩︎

  21. Dyer, White, 39 ↩︎

  22. Aaron Duncan, “A Change of Scenery: The Southern, the Western and the Evolution of the Frontier Myth in Justified,” in Myth and the Modern World: Essays on Intersections with Ideology and Culture. eds. David Whitt and John Perlich (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014), 76. ↩︎

  23. Justified, episode 15, “The Life Inside,” directed by Jon Avnet, written by Benjamin Cavell, aired February 16, 2011 on FX. ↩︎

  24. Again, see Hagelin and Silverman’s analysis of Mags as matriarch. ↩︎

  25. Justified, episode 22, “Brother’s Keeper,” directed by Tony Goldwyn, written by Taylor Elmore, aired April 16, 2011 on FX. ↩︎

  26. Justified, episode 74, “Burned.” ↩︎

  27. Justified, episode 74, “Burned.” ↩︎

  28. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1, Article 8. (1989), 144-45, emphasis in original. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Jonathan P. Lewis is Associate Professor of English at Troy University where he teaches Science Fiction, Fantasy, and general literature and composition courses. His work has been published in Extrapolation, Foundation SF, Pacific Coast Philology, and elsewhere.